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What Trump’s Climate Reversal Means for the Fashion Industry

While largely symbolic, the US president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement still has dangerous global implications. But many industry leaders remain committed to their individual carbon emission reduction goals.
Source: Shutterstock
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — President Donald Trump's announcement on Thursday that he plans to withdraw the United States from the historic 2015 Paris climate agreement to reduce carbon emissions did not come as a surprise, but the decision is still a deeply troubling development for those engaged in the global fight against climate change. The United States is the world's largest contributor of atmospheric carbon dioxide that scientists posit, if left unchecked, will continue to raise temperatures, elevate sea levels and lead to extreme climate conditions.

Trump’s announcement — which he said was motivated by economic concerns, in line with his “America First” policies — is largely symbolic. Under the terms of the agreement, the US cannot exit the pact until after the next presidential election in November 2020. However, the President has already started to reverse Obama-administration directives designed to set the country on a path toward its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The decision is a blow to the US’s global reputation for leading innovation, as Kering chief executive Francois-Henri Pinault pointed out on Twitter on Friday, writing: “Mr. President, in the ‘60s, America was walking on the moon. The new frontier is sustainability.” He also used French President-elect Emmanuel Macron’s response hashtag, #MakeOurPlanetGreatAgain.

American business leaders across the country, even from oil and gas giant ExxonMobil, have spoken out against the decision after co-signing letters and taking out ads urging the President to remain committed to the accord. Both Robert Iger, chief executive of Disney, and Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, said they will step down from the President’s councils as a result. Apple chief executive Tim Cook told employees that he tried to persuade Trump by phone on Tuesday.

What does this all mean for the fashion industry? Given that fashion is a massive source of pollution, Trump's decision is especially significant. The sector's CO2 emissions are expected to increase by more than 60 percent to nearly 2.8 billion tons per year by 2030, according to a recent report by the Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group.

Without government accountability, there will be fewer incentives and less pressure to reform polluting supply chains, as well as fewer consequences for brands that fail to meet their climate goals.

However, there are many other factors that will keep pushing American fashion brands towards energy reductions. For one, multi-national companies will have to continue to meet the standards of the different countries in which they operate. State and municipal governments are also pledging to lead climate legislation, and a new group led by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is coordinating directly with the UN, according to the New York Times.

Brands that have partnered with cross-industry organisations and NGOs to set goals must meet their expectations, and today shoppers are also demanding that fashion and other consumer good brands take a stand on environmental and political issues. Take, for example, the onslaught of criticism footwear brand New Balance received after the election when a company vice president made a pro-Trump statement, or the widespread campaign to boycott Uber that emerged after the ride-hailing app stayed silent about the Trump’s first Muslim immigrant ban in January.

It is my hope that our industry will see this as a call to action.

When Tiffany & Co. took out a highly publicised advertisement in The New York Times in May, urging US president Donald Trump to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement, interim chief executive Michael Kowalski said the reaction was mixed. "Our response was: this isn't politics, this is science," he said at May 2017's Copenhagen Fashion Summit, a global industry conference that addresses environmental and social issues.

Despite Trump’s decision, and perhaps emboldened by it, many major fashion and apparel brands remain committed to their individualised climate goals.

"I am saddened by our nation's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. It is my hope that our industry will see this as a call to action and commit to building a more sustainable future,” said designer and sustainability leader Eileen Fisher. “We will do our part — in our own operations and beyond — to help realise the vision of a global economy in which people and the planet thrive”

"We're working towards cutting greenhouse gas emissions from our global facilities in half by the end of 2020, diverting waste from our US facilities, and partnering with our suppliers around the world to adopt more sustainable manufacturing practices," said a spokesperson for Gap. "We will continue to work with like-minded businesses, NGOs and other stakeholders to support solutions that will create a more sustainable and economically strong future for the people and communities touched by our business around the world. It's not only the right thing for the planet, but also the right path forward for business growth, job creation and human health."

Nike will continue to honour commitments to the US Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge to make buildings more energy efficient as well as the American Business Act on Climate Change Pledge, an Obama-era commitment signed before the Paris agreement to reach 100 percent renewable energy in all Nike-owned or operated facilities around the world by 2025. “We are deeply disappointed by the recent shift in climate policy,” said a spokesperson for the company. “Nike believes that climate change is a serious global threat and that the world will need to radically redesign industrial systems and economies in order to enable a low-carbon growth economy.”

It's not only the right thing for the planet, but also the right path forward for business growth.

However, emission and waste-reduction changes to raw material supply chains, where much of fashion’s more damaging impact occurs, remain costly and complicated endeavours. US fashion brands such as Levi’s have found that government incentives allow them to enact more changes, faster. Without that support, will the process slow down?

"Leaving the Paris Climate Accord puts us – and our US peers – at a huge disadvantage," wrote Levi Strauss & Co chief executive Chip Bergh on LinkedIn on Thursday. "We're acutely aware that climate change, if left unchecked, will have dire effects on our business, the communities in which we operate, and the world at large. The Administration's decision to back out of the Paris Accord will not change Levi Strauss & Co.'s commitment to reducing our impact on the environment; and we will continue to pursue technologies that can reduce the apparel industry's environmental impact."

Regardless, there is still a financial incentive to continue to invest in energy-saving production.

"The value for the world economy of reducing energy emissions in the fashion industry is equivalent to €67 billion annually," says Eva Kruse, chief executive of the Global Fashion Agenda and organiser of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. "This underlines why this decision is not only without vision but completely lacks business sense — it's just plain stupid. When politicians like Trump fail people and the planet, it reinforces the need for industries to come together and take the lead."

And it reinforces the need for other countries to take the lead, as it appears China will continue to do despite Trump's announcement. "Most of the international community is showing that things certainly won't stop because Trump has decided to withdraw," said Livia Firth, advocate and founder of Eco Age. "For the fashion industry it is a matter of deciding whether they want a profitable business in 10 years time, in which case they have to fight climate change at every level."

Other industry leaders weighed in on Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate accord. Read on for their responses:

Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M Group: "It is unfortunate that the US is withdrawing from the accord and we feel that this is not the right signal for the world at the moment when climate needs to be addressed. We hope it will not affect the overall climate accord and that the work around it will still be at the forefront for all of the other countries who continue to be a part and lead in this important issue."

Steven Kolb, president and chief executive, Council of Fashion Directors of America: "The CFDA helps designers elevate the level and percentage of sustainability within their businesses with the 'CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative.' It is an important program of the organisation, even more so now."

Natalie Chanin, founder and creative director, Alabama Chanin: "I'm extremely surprised and disappointed but I guess we've seen this coming. Today, sitting in Paris, I'm trying to keep perspective and know that sometimes we humans need to step back before making great leaps forward. Now more than ever, it is the individual, at a grassroots level, who must seize their power to enact change. For fashion, that means choosing to support businesses who voluntarily decide to make a difference and purchasing products that are part of the solution. This is more important now than ever before. In the end, we can create policy all day; however, action will always speak — scream — louder than any policy. Action is our greatest source of power and wealth."

Julie Gilhart, fashion consultant: "If ever there was a call to action, it's now. As a fashion brand, I can see where taking a stand politically is risky, but cancelling the climate agreement is beyond politics. We must all stand strong as a community and as Michael Bloomberg so eloquently stated, 'Americans will honour and fulfil the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up — and there isn't anything Washington can do to stop us.'"

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